When it comes the least-liked superheroes, it seems like a lot of people pinpoint Captain America. The common arguments are that he’s dull or too perfect… or that he represents a sort of chauvinist patriotism that’s off-putting. But Captain America might be the superhero I love the most, and the more I learn about him, the more I don’t believe any of those arguments against him are true.
The “Jingoism” Thing
I have to admit that at first glance, Captain America can come across as a little too patriotic sometimes. It’s like he’s supposed to represent the entire United States, and everybody is supposed to love him. But if you’re not American, I can’t imagine the idea of American ideals parading around in tights and abs is going to be appealing. (As an American, I wouldn’t really know, but personally, I would not be particularly drawn to any over-idealized Captain Any-Other-Country.)
Sure, I believe strongly in “American” ideals like liberty, rights, and equality for all. I believe they make great ideals for a superhero, too. But tying those ideals so strictly to the United States via a “Captain America” is potentially alienating to anyone not-American. It comes across like jingoism.
But that’s just at first look; it doesn’t mean that Captain America is fundamentally a jingoistic character. The important distinction in my books is this: While Captain America always stands for American ideals, he believes these ideals can apply to anyone — and he isn’t always on the U.S. government’s side. This is pretty much my favorite moment of his (from Amazing Spider-Man #537, Civil War):
When Captain America was first created in the 1940’s, the United States was unified against a common enemy. I mean, the very first issue shows Cap punching Adolf Hitler, which is something we can all get behind. But today, America lacks that unity, and the issues that matter to us are very different than they were in the 1940’s.
That’s why modern writers have reshaped him to suit the times. A perfect example is in the Civil War comics, which depict Cap leading a group of superheroes who go underground while the government hunts them down. The U.S. passes a law forcing all heroes to register their real identities and work for them. Tony Stark, already famous as Iron Man, supports superheroes being on the government’s payroll, and Spidey takes off his mask for the first time in support of the act. But Steve Rogers believes in privacy and liberty for superheroes — and that pits him, the American icon, against the American government.
If the definition of jingoism is “the extreme belief that your own country is always best, often shown in enthusiastic support for a war against another country,” Captain America’s actions in Civil War prove that he’s no jingoist.
On a lesser scale, Cap also shows an affection for other countries, especially those that have fought for their ideals the way Americans did in World War II. When he visits Paris in The Winter Soldier arc, he remembers fighting alongside the French soldiers during the Nazi invasion and says that even though France may have surrendered, the French didn’t. On the flip side, he also often expresses frustration with his own countrymen’s views or unfounded prejudices.
Cap is always making these kinds of distinctions. A man is not his country; a man is his ideals. He proves himself by his actions, and that’s the way Steve Rogers lives his life even before he becomes Captain America. His origin story is one of my favorites, because he isn’t born with superpowers, and he doesn’t have a big, tragic story that sparks his interest in fighting crime or saving the world. Instead, he’s just a good man who doesn’t like bullies. He wants to fight for his country during World War II, when the United States is standing up to the Nazis… but as the U.S. changes, his support for the government can change too. I love that he stands firm in his convictions even when it means disobeying the law.
Is Cap Really Too Perfect?
Cap can also be a Gary Stu (Mary Sue) character, and as such he can come across as a little too perfect, a little too always-right. Writers can use him as a way of presenting their idea of what is right in a way which, through the “perfect” Captain America, can come across as self-righteous. Like nobody can argue with it. I mean, when a character has the American stars and stripes on his armor and shield, he better not do something evil or it’s as if America is doing something evil, right? That may let writers get away with preaching, with Captain America as their mouthpiece.
However, I haven’t found this to be a major problem yet. It’s really incumbent on the writers to humanize Cap, and some have done that better than others. In reading Ed Brubaker’s work and the Civil War stories, I see a well-rounded, likable Captain America. Anyone who criticizes Cap as being a dull penny or a pretentious jerk should actually be criticizing the storytelling for that particular arc or novel. I think that’s why so many people hate Cap in Avengers vs. X-Men but love him in Civil War. Put him in the hands of a good writer, and you get something magical.
Reading Winter Soldier lately, I’ve related to the man who is Captain America, Steve Rogers — the first Cap. He feels displaced and homesick for a completely different time period — his real home — that he can never go back to. He grieves for his best friend and, for a time, even worries that he might be losing his grip on reality. That’s what I want to know more about. I like learning about the human character rather than just the Captain.
That’s why when Cap takes a sweeping action, I believe it more when it has some root in who Steve is. That’s when he nails it. I feel for his personal ideas rather than the general patriotism, and things get more interesting when stories show Cap as more than just a symbol of American freedom. Or maybe as less than that.
I don’t buy the argument that Captain America is perfect all the time. Sure, he has a genuine belief in honesty and justice, as well as a resolve that makes him an inspiring leader. But he’s not always sure of himself, and he makes mistakes like any human. Personally, I love it when he loses it a little. While other superheroes can almost come across like bullies if they savagely beat up someone who isn’t fighting back, when it’s Cap, it feels like a character flaw that humanizes him — and you know there’s an awfully good reason for every punch he throws.
It’s for all of these reasons that I don’t find Captain America to be dull or too-perfect or jingoistic. I think he has a clean, simple heroism that makes him worth rooting for, and it doesn’t always have anything to do with America — it’s about standing up for your beliefs no matter what size you are or how big that enemy is.